In this Jan. 19, 1999 file photo, President Clinton acknowledges the crowd prior to giving his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill. (Photo: AP)
Two decades ago, President Bill Clinton addressed a nation transfixed by impeachment. He didn’t use the I-word once in a State of the Union address that ran on for 78 minutes.
Now, President Donald Trump prepares to address the nation under similar circumstances, with the added pressure of a looming presidential election thrown into the mix. And no one expects him to follow the Clinton model by ignoring the elephant in the room — especially since he now appears likely to be acquitted the day after the speech.
Trump is hardly the first president to deliver a State of the Union address in a time of turmoil. Abraham Lincoln delivered a written report during the Civil War, Richard Nixon spoke while embroiled in the Watergate scandal. Gerald Ford declared “the state of the union is not good.” But Clinton’s 1999 speech offers the most obvious parallels.
A Republican-controlled House impeached Clinton in December 1998 on grounds that he had lied to a federal grand jury and obstructed justice about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Just hours before Clinton delivered his State of the Union address, White House lawyers opened their defense of the president in his Senate trial. They argued he was innocent of the charges and “must not be removed from office.”
Clinton’s address, in the same chamber where he had been impeached weeks earlier, was met with respectful applause, though some Republicans decided to boycott the address saying it was inappropriate for Clinton to appear before Congress during his impeachment trial. Two of his harshest Republican critics, House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, sat stonily side by side.
Clinton speechwriter Michael Waldman says he can’t recall any discussion leading up to the 1999 address about whether Clinton should talk about the impeachment proceedings.
“It never was considered,” says Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. “His entire goal in a speech like that was to remind people of the policy agenda that he cared about and that they liked, and also to remind people of the parts of the presidency that they liked.”
Clinton focused his speech on using the large majority of a projected $4 trillion surplus over 15 years to shore up Social Security and Medicare. Republicans resisted and instead called for tax cuts. Indeed, he offered so many policy proposals that one Democratic lawmaker, Rep. Joseph Moakley of Massachusetts, remarked; “He did everything but buy a new dress for the Statue of Liberty.”
At the time, the economy was entering its third consecutive year of economic growth exceeding 4 percent. An astonishing 69% of the country approved of the job Clinton was doing as president and 29% disapproved, according to Gallup polling. The Senate would go on to acquit Clinton the following month.
Twenty-five years earlier, Nixon devoted much of his final State of the Union speech to the country’s energy crisis. But near the end of his remarks, he added a “personal word” about Watergate. Nixon called for the investigation to end, declaring “one year of Watergate is enough” and said he had no “intention whatever” of resigning.
Nixon’s poll standing bumped up past the two-thirds level after his State of the Union address. But there was more to Watergate, and as that scandal wore on, into impeachment proceedings, his job approval steadily sank, to 23 percent at the point he finally quit.
The New York Times recounted that Republicans in the chamber greeted Nixon with applause, cheers and whoops for more than two minutes. The “most startling demeanor” was on the Democratic side. Sen. Sam Ervin, chairman of the Watergate Committee, didn’t applaud once. While snickers and grimaces greeted Nixon’s pledge to protect Americans from such privacy invasions as “electronic snooping.”
Trump is coming into the election year with his approval rating at 44% and his disapproval rating at 53%, according to the latest Gallup numbers. In seeking reelection, Trump is hoping to use a backlash against impeachment to help motivate his core supporters, but he also needs to reach out to a broader swath of voters.
The final vote in Trump’s impeachment trial is now set for Wednesday afternoon. The Senate on Friday rejected the summoning of witnesses in the trial, all but ensuring Trump’s eventual acquittal.
Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak said there will be lots of other opportunities for Trump to get the last word in on impeachment. The State of the Union is not that time.
“I think in many ways the single best opportunity he has with this particular State of the Union will be to attract a broader coalition of supporters,” Mackowiak said. “I’m hoping that he doesn’t go on offense too much.”
Still, Trump can hardly get through any event at the White House without talking about the impeachment inquiry and trial. His comments in greeting the Louisiana State University college football champions and in signing a new trade deal with Canada and Mexico inevitably included references to the impeachment proceedings.
Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan and an author about memorable State of the Union addresses, said that, based on history, Trump would be best served keeping the public’s focus off impeachment during the State of the Union.
“The Clinton model proved to be successful,” Kall said. But knowing Trump, he added, “It will be impossible for him not to take a victory lap.”